When Matt Harring has Tampa Bay Buccaneers tickets to share, it doesn't take him long to figure out who to call. The 26-year-old financial advisor with the Harring Planning Group of Raymond James & Associates can quickly query the contact management tool on his desktop to find out which clients are fans and whom he has invited before. Then he can seamlessly draft emails to find out who might be interested and available.

Favorite spectator sports are just one of many data points Harring and his father Jeff, the branch's senior vice president of financial planning, collect about clients. Preferred restaurants, wines and charities are all part of the fields they aim to fill out in their customer relationship management (CRM) system, along with notes about clients' family members who could benefit from their services in the future.

"If you keep filling it with good information, once in a while you'll see some good opportunities there," says Jeff Harring, who led the switch from an Act! contact management system to the Microsoft Dynamics platform that Raymond James supports about two years ago. "We see about $2 million in new assets a year as a direct result of utilizing the data and the new processes and reports available from CRM," the elder Harring says.

With clients expecting more mass customization, financial advisors are under the gun to follow suit. To do so, many are investing more effort in digitizing their client records through contact management, or CRM, systems. "The majority of advisors have well north of 200 households," notes Paul Brunswick, senior managing principal of coaching firm CEG Worldwide. So while everything an advisor presents to the client must seem very personal, "behind the curtain, you need to be systematic."

Better Integration
To help, many broker/dealers now support CRM systems that are integrated with all other firm applications, making it possible for advisors to connect calendars, email and client files with a few clicks. Corporate offices are also pre-populating CRMs with essential client data, such as birthdates and addresses, taking a huge data entry burden off individual teams.

"Our job is to provide something that's so compelling that advisors want to use it," says Shannon Hogan, field technology solutions project manager at UBS. The majority of UBS advisors are now using in some way the integrated contact management system the firm offered about three years ago, she says. The most heavily used functions are electronic note-taking, capturing documents and reconstructing email trails. Some home offices are also taking advantage of the systems to make their marketing materials more personal, allowing advisors to personalize greetings on mass corporate marketing mailings or to switch clients from hard copy to e-delivery.

Those popular functions mean that, at a minimum, advisors don't have to rely on memory alone to recall what they previously discussed with a client and can easily share the live or electronic conversations with others on their teams, averting some awkward moments. Still, Hogan notes, advisors "can almost always" find ways to use the systems more effectively.

That's a sentiment her counterparts at other firms echo. In fact, some advisors still haven't gotten on board with the basics. "The biggest difficulty we see is that one person on a team uses it, but another person won't, so you're obviously not getting the complete picture of the client," says Josh Bohlander, vice president of advisor technology at Raymond James.

For Jeff Puissant, a director at the GB Group at Baird, an automated system is essential to keeping his team's seven advisors on the same page, in part because one of the partners is in Florida while the rest are in Green Bay, Wis. The contact management tool makes "location unimportant" as the team coordinates meetings and client outreach, he says.

Building relationships and new business using CRM takes a much more concerted effort, however. To that end, the team includes one person whose primary job is to work with the CRM. Among other tasks, she uses the tool to create a list each month telling Puissant and the other advisors which clients they need to reach out to and why, whether it's a casual conversation, formal review meeting or a piece of information that should be sent out. Beyond that, the team uses the data to recall important client life events so they can coordinate outreach.

Puissant also likes to look for under-the-radar reasons to celebrate with clients. "It's easy to know a person's date of birth, but they don't expect you to send them a note on the anniversary of buying their house," he says. "It's all about showing they're important to us and that we're paying attention to the small details."

Sorting Strategies
In terms of building new business, some advisors sort the information to generate ideas for outreach or events. For example, searching for clients with a favorite charity "can lead to a conversation about whether they're giving the right way, and if they could benefit them in a smarter way than writing a check," Jeff Harring says. Other common sorts include identifying clients nearing their 62nd birthdays for conversations about Social Security or with new grandchildren as a trigger for talking about college funds. Advisors looking to develop a more robust specialization strategy may also query the system to see what concentrations already exist within their current client base, giving them an easy starting point.

The possibilities for segmenting clients are "almost limitless," says Raymond James' Bohlander. The Microsoft Dynamics CRM offers 300 fields (plus customizable ones), all searchable, meaning that personalization can occur at the most minute levels of detail. For example, he knows of one advisor who tracks clients' favorite colors and then matches his wardrobe to them for meetings. It's not unusual to keep track of favorite beverages, in order to offer them when a client visits.

The systems can also handle prospective clients. CRM lets advisors tally how many prospects are in each stage of the sales cycle, what information they have received and what they have been promised.

Of course, part of the art of successful CRM use is getting the client information in the first place. Some advisors do a formal questionnaire at the start of the relationship, but others like to keep it casual. Matt Harring says it's an ongoing process. He reviews a client's record before each meeting and selects a few fields that he'll try to probe during the meeting. That alone can be a relationship-builder, he says. "Just filling out some of these forms in CRM makes us seem more proactive," he notes.

One of the most powerful fields tends to be the frequency with which a client wants to be contacted. "Before, you just kind of assumed that you meet with your best clients four times a year, but now you can ask them what they prefer and keep track of it," Harring says. On the flip side, it's important to recognize that drilling into sensitive topics may take time and less direct methods. Jeff Harring says that one of his clients has had a special needs trust for years, but didn't want to focus on it in their meetings. He finally opened up, but only after the Harrings invited his wife to join the meetings.

Looking Ahead
Advisors can gain a lot from managing their businesses through a CRM. The next big step, however, will be having the CRM manage advisors, says Michael "Buz" Weas, COO for Alpine Metrics. His start-up firm produces an analytic tool that can use CRM data to track progress on new business goals—and in some cases, tell advisors how to meet them. It's still up to the advisor to set goals for the number and types of contacts and prospects they want to have. "But over time, it will be able to look at your history and tell you things like, 'You're not doing enough of this type of activity with this type of client' or 'Here's where the bottleneck to success will mostly likely be,'" Weas says.

Not everyone may want that level of direction from their computer. But even short of employing predictive analytics, advisors who are avid users of CRM say they have plenty of ways to keep improving their use of the tool.

"As your practice evolves, so do your CRM needs," Puissant says. Right now, for instance, he is looking forward to Baird's impending CRM upgrade to coordinate his teams' calendars faster. That's because even the basics, like scheduling, can be complex in a large practice and translate into the loss of customer loyalty if done poorly. "Trust and reputation are earned over time. They can be lost very quickly if you don't do what you say you'll do," he says.